Immigrants, organizations want Arabic, other language options for Tennessee driver’s exam

Staff Photo by Andrew Schwartz / The Chattanooga/Bonny Oaks Driver Services and Reinstatement Center is seen Thursday.
Staff Photo by Andrew Schwartz / The Chattanooga/Bonny Oaks Driver Services and Reinstatement Center is seen Thursday.

Tennessee offers its driver's license knowledge test in English and Spanish — as well as the less widely-spoken Korean, Japanese and German, which were added as carmakers from nations where those languages prevail came to Tennessee, officials have said.

For years, members of the state's large Arabic-speaking community and other immigrant groups — observing that the ability to drive is a precondition for jobs and everyday tasks of Tennessee life — have asked the state to offer more language options for the exam.

"They've just gotten the run-around," said Joseph Gutierrez, the executive director of Asian & Pacific Islanders of Middle Tennessee.

State officials often say they're looking into it, he said by phone.

"But nothing changes," Gutierrez said.

It is not clear why. Many other states like Georgia and Alabama offer the exam in Arabic — and several other languages, too. One Tennessee official told a reporter that to translate the test to another language could cost from $3,000 to $5,000.

A push for additional languages on this knowledge test — which is distinct from the practical driving test where language is less of a factor — could route through one of two paths: the state legislature or state administrators.

Efforts on the legislative front have at times been led by state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville. In 2022, he sponsored a bill that would allow language interpreters to assist applicants during exams, but it failed.

The next summer, he told reporters he would pursue another bill on the matter during the 2023 legislative session. But Gutierrez is not aware of any such bill Yarbro has put forth, and Yarbro did not respond to multiple email inquiries.

Yarbro has previously told reporters he prefers the administrative route -- the Tennessee driver services department could simply add the new languages of its own volition -- over the testy political realm.

"The fear there is that it ends up being a step backwards rather than a step forwards," he told Memphis's WKNO in 2019, when he was speaking in support of adding languages to the written license test. "It could become just another political issue that's red meat in the sort of divisive debate that we're having in the country over immigration."

Gutierrez agrees the administrative route has fewer hurdles. But even these have proved hard to overcome.

In June, Michael Hogan, who heads up the driver services division for the state, told Nashville's WPLN he was aware of the desire for the test to be offered in more languages and had communicated up to other officials about it.

In January, Hogan directed a Chattanooga Times Free Press email inquiry on the matter to spokesman Wesley Moster, who said the administration was considering the request to expand language access.

"Any changes depend on economic and population trends," Moster said. "The department consistently looks for ways to expand services to benefit the citizens of Tennessee."

On Wednesday, the Times Free Press checked in with Moster and Hogan by email, asking what officials Hogan has spoken with, what the barriers are and to respond to complaints that the government is giving immigrant groups the run-around.

"There are not any updates at this time," Moster said. "Our department is still considering the requests for additional languages."

English-only bills used to be in vogue. For several years in the late 2000s, the Tennessee legislature considered eliminating all but English versions of the driver's license knowledge test, according to Times Free Press archives.

"I felt it was necessary from a safety standpoint that everyone who drives on our roads and our state know how to read English," said Bill Ketron, then a Republican state senator from Murfreesboro and a frequent sponsor of these bills, according to a Times Free Press report from the time.


'Halfway to success'

Ashraf Fam said he worked in the legal department for Mercedes in Cairo, Egypt, before immigrating to Tennessee nearly two decades ago. He said everyone tells new immigrants, "If you get the driver's license, you're almost halfway to success."

For a newcomer who speaks little to no English, the hard part of driving is not interpreting the signs of the road, Fam said by phone.

"All of this is easy," Fam said.

The problem was the knowledge test, whose questions and answers about general road law could easily be rendered in another language.

Denying people a test in a language they're comfortable with leads to perverse incentives, Fam said. People studying seek out specific letters and words as indicators of a correct answer, rather than trying to understand the meaning of the sentences, he said.

Some get lucky and pass the test, he said, but this doesn't mean they understand the questions. And he feels the most important thing is that people know the law.

Fam bought a car almost immediately upon arriving in Tennessee. But in the early months he kept failing the driver's license knowledge exam, he said, and had to endure a mandatory waiting period between these failures. Nonetheless he got a job at a Gaylord Hotel in the Nashville area.

He said the first thing he was asked was whether he had reliable transportation to work and back. Sensing his job hinged on the answer, he said he did and illegally commuted with just his international driver's license, he said, until finally he passed the test a couple of weeks later.

The challenge is not universal in the state's immigrant community. Multiple leaders at the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga told the Times Free Press they have not heard of mosque members struggling with the driver's license knowledge exam.

But Fam and others said his experience is common.

Reliable public transportation is hard to come by in Tennessee, and newcomers must find a way to get their jobs -- often in the hospitality industry or factories or warehouses -- or to pick up their children from a far-away school bus stop, or to get to English classes.

Help exists. Some Coptic Christian Churches, for example, offer transportation services. Some immigrants buy a car and get someone else to drive it, although women -- already reluctant to use the bus -- rarely feel comfortable in these situations, said Lydia Yousief, who directs the Nashville-based Elmahaba center, which advocates for the Arabic-speaking community.

Some people resort to sneakier options. Fam said he knows a guy who gets clients a false address in another state and drives them there to get a license test in Arabic. People spend thousands of dollars for this service, Fam said.

"We just need the people to listen and understand our challenge."

Of Tennessee's population of more than 6.5 million people, about 6 million speak only English at home, according to a Migration Policy Institute analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

Of the 500,000 remaining people, a little more than half speak Spanish.

The next most spoken language by far is Arabic, and of this cohort, about 13,000 people speak English "less than 'very well.'" Including all language-speakers, more than 170,000 Tennesseans -- just about equivalent to the population of Chattanooga -- fall into this category of people who struggle with English.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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